Thoughts On…Persona 5

Reviews, Video Games

One of the most interesting things about critiquing art (whether it bet books, paintings, movies, or video games) is how much a person’s own personal experiences plays into their views on the piece. For instance, when I was in high school I had all the time in the world and could immerse myself in World of Warcraft. At the time, I felt it was one of the best games on the market. Nowadays, I have a job and responsibilities, so, while I still think WoW is a great game, I’m never going to view it the same because I don’t have the time to grind out the gear needed to play the game at the same level I used to.

It’s important to bring this up because its been quite a while since I could feel my own life coloring my experience with a game like I did in my Persona 5 playthrough.

See, the thing to know upfront is that Persona 5 is an incredibly long game. In fact, even before all the padding they add through text boxes (more on this later), it’s probably a 60 hour game that took me twice as long to beat for various reasons. Unfortunately for me, the game came out at the exact wrong time. I was in the middle of Horizon: Zero Dawn and was about to leave for two months of work in about three weeks. Work where I would be unable to play any games.

Now, I loved Persona 3 and 4. I played P4 through three separate times (which isn’t really a brag, as it seems quite common in the community) and enjoyed every second of it. Needless to say, I was hyped for P5 and knew that I would have to push as hard as possible to finish the game before I left so I didn’t split up my playthrough.

In doing so, I made a pretty large mistake. I put the game on the easiest setting, “Safe”. My thought process was that save points are relatively slim in Persona games (though P5 is better than past games) and dying would lose me potentially hours of time. However, if you put the game in “Safe” mode, you can’t really die. When you do, you just respawn with full health and mana, while the enemy keeps it’s current health points. Effectively, the game plays itself for you.

What I didn’t predict was how boring this would make the game. I mean, at that point it was basically just a 100-hour text adventure. I’m all for a good text adventure, but, with little to no player choice in the game, P5 was not built to be a text adventure game.

So, for me, P5 quickly became a game that I didn’t really like, but would recommend to anyone looking to get into JRPGs or just fans of video game story in general. Sure, the supporting characters are weaker than past games and dialogue does drag at times (I don’t know how many SMS exchanges I had to endure, but it was far too many)

That said, almost every aspect of the game is improved from Persona 4. It’s incredible how far along the bland level design has come. In P4, dungeons were incredibly basic, with little to no interaction. P5 takes it up a notch and includes different types of puzzles to solve that break up the sometimes long dungeon crawls. Plus, the actual dungeon layouts are much more interesting than past entries.

On top of that, this game is absolutely dripping with style. The overlays and environments are top notch. The music is out of this world great. Heck, even the menus are among the best I’ve ever seen in video games. Even the biggest JRPG haters out there would have to agree that Persona 5 looks rad.

And for JRPG fans, I thought the combat was pretty fun. Sure, it’s a pretty conventional “this element beats that one, but loses to another one” style, but I found it fun nonetheless. My biggest gripe with the battle system is Persona’s continued use of the instant-kill spells that are guaranteed to set you back an hour or more at least once a play-through. However, that’s pretty small in the grand scheme of a 100-hour campaign.

So, at the end of the day, Persona 5 was a weird game for me. On one hand, I mostly disliked my own experience with P5. On the other, this is an incredible entry point for someone looking to get into JRPGs and seems like everything longtime Persona fans were looking for. Play this game. Just don’t play it the same way I did. Give yourself plenty of time and play on Normal. You’ll thank me later.

Thoughts on…Horizon Zero Dawn

Reviews, Video Games

For me, Horizon Zero Dawn came at very strange time. I had just come off a two-week binging of both Uncharted 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Plus, Breathe of the Wild was going to be released in just a few days. One could say that I was going through somewhat of an open-world/action game overload.

I mean, for various reasons, Uncharted 4 and RotTR are both excellent games. Uncharted does cinematic story-telling better than just about anybody and that facial animation is worth the price of admission on its own. And Tomb Raider crafted a really fun campaign filled with interesting RPG elements. Add in the fact that the hype for Zelda was at a fever pitch and it’s easy to see a world where Horizon didn’t a fair shake from me.

Which is why it was so impressive to me that Horizon was as enthralling as it was. Literally everything in my life was going against this game and it still made an impression. That’s when you know you have a true gem on your hands. Often, when playing games, my real life experiences help shape how I view the game. So, when a game takes my current mood in life and just says, “no, you need to pay attention”, that’s exactly what I do.

At the core, Horizon is so captivating because the developers have nailed two major things. First, the game is pure fun. Guerrilla Games locked in what is, for my money, the best bow-play in the business. The central shooting mechanic is so perfect that it almost feels like you’re handicapping your own experience when you decide to go for the easier stealth method.

Even beyond the shooting, the way different weapons in your arsenal interact with each other and your enemies make for a deceptively deep combat system. After awhile, you sort of find what works best for your playstyle, but it’s worth it to look for opportunities to switch it up. You’ll be rewarded with immensely satisfying fights that will truly test you.

Speaking of immensely satisfying, the other thing Horizon nails is how to tell a story. Now, if someone wrote the plot of Horizon out and handing it to me, I don’t know if I would think it’s some amazing post-apocalyptic fiction. That said, Guerrilla Games understands how to string you along and keep you invested.

Countless times during my playthrough I found myself saying, “just one more quest”. Horizon’s drip feed of information is as close to perfect as I’ve seen in a video game. Every answered question comes with more questions and you have to know the answers. And, while the game doesn’t completely stick the landing, it does better than just about any other video game narrative I’ve seen.

On top of these two gigantic pluses in Horizon’s “pros and cons” sheet, the game looks incredible. The skyboxes are breath-taking and Aloy’s hair might be the best in gaming. Sure, the facial animations are a little stiff and the voice sync gets off from time-to-time, but those are minor complaints. If you want a game to show off your PS4 (or your Pro), this is a great option.

So, as you can see, I’m pretty high on this game. It became my second platinum (though the other one is Fallout 4, which is a game I kind of hate) last week and I’m currently rocking the platinum theme. I think this game is more than worth your time. It’s ability to stand out even during my open-world/action game overload made it a game I’d recommend to everyone. Do yourself a favor and pick it up, if you haven’t already.

Thoughts On…Inside

Reviews, Video Games

Note: This post may contain some spoilers. You’ve been warned.

If you asked most players what stuck with them from their playthrough of Inside, I think many of them would point to “That Moment” at the tail end of the game. If you’ve played, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, the simplest way to describe it is that there is a moment that occurs about 30 minutes through the game that completely flips the entire game. It’s what people were talking about in the weeks after release and it’s what I want to focus on in this post.

Now, when we think of moments or “twists” in games, they’re often story-related. Like an M. Night Shyamalan film. The story hits a point where a “new thing” is introduced that automatically re-contextualizes everything that came before and, when it’s a good twist, answers most of the questions the audience had about what exactly is happening. In Inside, the developers went with a different twist. One of the gameplay variety.

A gameplay twist isn’t exactly novel. After all, many games play one way for awhile and then introduce a new element or weapon that completely changes things up. What is striking about Inside is that the change comes so suddenly and so close to the game being over.

For most of your playthrough of Inside, you’re a little boy solving environmental puzzles in some strange, post-apocalyptic world. Like developer PlayDead’s first game Limbo, the puzzles are decent (one that sees you mimicking zombie-like humans is particularly fun) and the art style is exceptional. On its own, that portion of the game would best be categorized as “fine”. However, something happens at the end that completely changes how I felt about the entire game.

With about 30 minutes remaining in your play time, the boy enters a vat of liquid that contains a mass of human body part. The boy starts pulling plugs out of the mass to free it from its constraints. As the last of the restraints come off, the player is sucked into and becomes the blob.

What follows is a thrilling sequence that sees everything change. The blob has a real weightiness to it and controlling the monstrosity is when Inside is at its best. Plus, the environmental puzzles get a lot more fun the second the little boy gets a lot bigger. There is just something deliciously gleeful about seeing a mass of limbs barrel through walls and tear apart scenery.

You’d think this crescendo of great gameplay would be the cherry topping on what is a great game and, for most reviewers, I think it is. However, just like when you find out Bruce Willis was dead throughout the Sixth Sense, when the game flips your character from a little boy to a monstrous blob, you’re forced to reevaluate the entire game.

When that moment hit me, I realized that the three hours I’d spent with the little boy weren’t as fun anymore. The switch didn’t make me love the game even more. Instead, I was a little annoyed that the truly great part of this game was relegated to a 30 minute sequence at the end. I hate to equate fun to numbers, but I essentially played a game that was only fun for 1/8 of its run time. If a game is only really fun for one sequence, is it a good game?

You’ll have to answer that question on your own. For me, I’m left feeling like I got invited to an expensive five-course meal seconds after I finished downing a few cheeseburgers at McDonalds. The food I could eat on that mostly full stomach was great, but I sure wish my friend had called earlier. Here’s hoping Playdead gives me a little desert with some blob-centric DLC

Thoughts On…Fallout 4: Automatron

Reviews, Video Games

A few months ago, when I had wrapped up Fallout 4 and decided to post some thoughts about the game on this blog, I summed up the game by comparing FO4 to the synths that were so crucial to the main plot. One the surface, Fallout 4 seemed like a better game than Fallout 3 or New Vegas. The gameplay was tighter. The graphics had taken a step up. The crafting had really been taken to the next level. Heck, even the enemies had been improved by a system that allowed room for unique enemies to spawn anywhere on the map.

With that said, I could never shake the feeling that actually playing the game felt like a massive step back for the series. Fallout 3 and New Vegas had memorable characters weaved into an interesting plot. Sure, Bethesda has never put together a great main story, but the side quests and random encounters in the two previous games were some of the best designed in the industry.

Fallout 4, on the other hand, felt barren, lifeless even.

Where was the wackiness that made those other games so beloved? Why was every location so devoid of the heart of past entries? For that matter, why was the player character made so cookie-cutter, which led to a scenario where your perk and special choices felt largely irrelevant to the narrative.

I know Fallout 4 was a fun game for most people and I liked it enough to snag the platinum trophy on PS4 (my first platinum, by the way). Unfortunately, even after spending around 150 hours in the Commonwealth, I couldn’t bring myself to recommend the game to readers of this blog.

I tell you all of this because I think it’s important to understand where I’m coming from when I write about Fallout 4’s first DLC titled “Automatron”. I’m a lover of all things Fallout, but I was extremely disappointed with Bethesda’s efforts for Fallout 4.

Which might make it strange when I say that, for the most part, I kind of liked Automatron. It’s a very short story DLC that tasks the player with hunting down the Mechanist and stopping their robot army. You also quickly unlock the ability to build and upgrade your own robots. I didn’t spend a ton of time with that portion of the DLC, but I loved what I saw in my limited efforts with the Fallout-themed “Battlebots”.

It was the story of the DLC that really grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this was some Bethesda writer’s magnum opus or anything. In fact, the story is pretty average. However, what it does is capture that strange heart that made Fallout 3 and New Vegas so beloved.

Let’s think about it for a second. Some denizen of Boston has listened to a few too many Silver Shroud broadcasts and decided to take on the mantle of one of his greatest villains, the Mechanist. They then use their extensive electronic and tinkering abilities to build a junk robot army. That army is sent out into the Commonwealth and starts terrorizing the settlers of Boston. Like, what is this story?

At that point, the player stumbles upon a group of the Mechanist’s robots killing a group of humans and friendly robots. You get there too late to save everyone, but you do save one of the robots, which starts you on your quest to stop the dastardly villain.

Of course, it would be a Bethesda sidequest if the story didn’t take a few turns along the way and this was does just that. I won’t spoil them for you here, instead, I’ll just say that I thought they fit the story and made it more interesting, which is all you can ask for.

My only problem is that, when the story is over, it just drops off. The resolution came and I was assuming that we would then see some character development. Instead, it’s just another round of Minutemen fetch quests with a new theme slapped on top of it. Which really sucks because, up until that point, I thought they’d finally what made the last two games so special. They had nailed the wackiness and they had given themselves a great path to build an excellent side character. Then, in typical Fallout 4 fashion, they threw everything away and made it a shell of itself.

When you look at Automatron as a great sidequest in Fallout 4, I think it really works. As mentioned, it feels more like a Fallout 3 sidequest than something you’d see in the FO4 main game. There’s humor and heart and the setup is interesting, even if the payoff ultimately leaves you wanting more. So, in a way, this feels like a step in the right direction for an installment that left behind the reasons it was so beloved.

That said, you’re paying 10 bucks for a good sidequest in a Fallout game. Is that really worth your money? I don’t really think so; however, these tiny baby steps toward the things I love about Fallout have me extremely excited for Far Harbor. That is very much not something I would’ve said a few weeks ago.

Should You Play It? I’d pass if I could remake the decision. But it’s worth stating that it feels more like a Fallout game than the $60 retail game did, so that’s certainly something.

Thoughts on…Firewatch

Reviews, Video Games

I played through Firewatch a few weeks ago and I’ve sat down to write this article at least three times since then. In truth, I think I’ve spent more time thinking about Firewatch than I spent actually playing the game. Why am I focusing so much brain power on trying to understand my feelings about Firewatch? Well, it might sound weird, but the focal point of my pondering has been me wondering why I’m so intrigued by a game that I didn’t think was very good.

For those of you still wondering, “what is Firewatch?”, let me give you the quick elevator pitch. At its most basic, Firewatch is a walking simulator like Gone Home. It’s focused on telling you a story and (theoretically) telling it well, while also finding interesting ways for you to interact with the world around. It’s a very contained 4-5 hour journey that has you filling the role of a fire lookout in Wyoming with a few twists and turns to (hopefully) keep things interesting.

Mechanically, Firewatch is pretty basic. You can talk to another character through a walkie talkie and you find a few ways to explore previously off-limits areas as you play through the game. Otherwise, you’re basically just walking about looking for stuff to explore. Thus, most of the interesting things that happen come from the dialogue between your character (Henry) and his boss, Delilah.

Fortunately, the two characters are by far the best part of the game (maybe even the only good part). I was really impressed with how they built these two up from the opening scenes. Firewatch starts by just showing you text and letting you make a few choices about Henry’s life before he went to Wyoming. This sounds pretty basic, but it was honestly my favorite moment in the entire experience.

You see, in most games this would be the opportunity for you to put yourself into the character. You would likely shape the character in your image (making them as perfect as possible) and then you’d have ownership over the character. That’s not how Firewatch handles this scenario.

Instead, you’re given very limited options in how to respond to the various situations presented to you. At first, this gave me some dissonance because there’s no way I would ever do the things Henry does to his wife after she comes down with a disease. But I’m not Henry and Henry doesn’t think like me. He’s a deeply flawed individual, which makes him feel like an actual person and not a digital avatar. For me, this was an incredibly profound way to force me to abandon myself and instead play as Henry. Would I ever flirt with a women I just met when I was still married? Absolutely not, but Henry just might. Unlike the majority of video game protagonists, Henry is a three dimensional person with hopes and dreams that I, the player, have no control over.

This idea of placing a multi-faceted personality into a digital being continues when the player meets Delilah. It would be easy to build her as a perfect person who could either teach Henry something about life or give him the perfect out to get away from his wife. However, like Henry, Delilah isn’t perfect. She has her own struggles and, though she puts on a brave face and tries to laugh at herself and her problems, she’s as flawed as Henry is.

This is what makes their relationship work. Heck, it’s what makes the game worth playing. Henry and Delilah’s relationship feels more real than almost any other pairing I’ve ever seen in a video game. They are so natural with each other that you wonder if their voice actors are best friends in real life. It’s pretty incredible what Campo Santo was able to put together between these two, but it also makes you wish they’d been able to do as well in other areas.

As mentioned above, the gameplay is fairly limited and I honestly don’t fault the team for that. After all, they are focused on story, not on mechanics. On a micro level, they nail their story-telling. Henry and Delilah are a perfectly imperfect match. It’s when you get past that and move onto the main narrative that I’m left deeply disappointed.

The narrative tries to give you a few twists and turns to make things interesting, but it never really goes all the way. Additionally, there are a few plot threads that never get resolved and don’t end up making much sense. My biggest issue in that regard, was the weird phone message you can listen in on between Delilah and an unnamed person. That ends up having no impact on the plot except to make you ask questions. Really, most of the story just seems like a series of red herrings that are thrown in because they needed to keep you semi-engaged for longer than their story actually warranted.

In short, the story feels sloppily done, which is in stark contrast to how well written Henry and Delilah are. It feels like Campo Santo got about two thirds of the way there and then had to push out the game. So they threw something together and put it on the PSN store. As mentioned, the game feels like they had one story to tell that wasn’t going to be very interesting decided to pad the game out with false stories that only served to annoy because there was zero resolution.

That’s why I struggled so much with formulating my thoughts for Firewatch. On one hand, it’s built one of the better relationships in video games and gives the player two, three dimensional characters that could exist in the real world. On the other, it’s a boring mess of a story that doesn’t capitalize on anything built between the two characters. Maybe it’s my fault for letting my hype meter get too high; however, Firewatch reeks of a game with unrealized potential.

And that’s why I can’t help but feel like Campo Santo’s next effort is really going to rock my world. They’ve proven they can build characters and relationships, now they just need to polish up the overall product. I wouldn’t recommend this game to a friend (or someone reading this blog on the Internet), but I am looking out for the company’s next product. There’s so much here that could be great and I believe they’ll pull everything together on their sophomore project to go above and beyond the foundation that is Firewatch.

 

Thoughts On…The Witness (Or The Game That Finally Broke Me)

Reviews, Video Games

“This game.”

Those were undoubtedly my most said words during my playthrough of Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. Sometimes, it was said in moments of surprise (“Wow…this game…”). Sometimes, it was said in moments of frustration (“Screw this game!”). But, more often than not, it was said in moments of pure joy (“Yoooooooooo! This game, man!!!”).

Who would’ve thought that a game that is, at its most basic, just you solving line puzzles could bring so much satisfaction. But that’s what Blow was able to accomplish here. And it’s largely because of how well he and his team have empowered the player.

In today’s world of the internet, it is all too easy to get fed up with a video game and look up a guide to get through a puzzle or a particularly difficult part of a game. That is still very possible in The Witness (and something I suspect many people will do, given the difficulty); however, Blow and his team have gone to incredible links to ensure that you know, in the back of your mind, that you have everything it takes to solve the puzzle.

Blow posted a tweet a week or so ago that says, “You are smart, you can do this.” In my opinion, this tweet perfectly sums up how this game was developed. The team at Thekla have put together a brilliantly paced experience that slowly drips out just enough detail to make every puzzle solvable without a guide. It progresses at such a pace that the feeling of being overwhelmed is temporary. If you can’t solve a puzzle at this exact second, you just need a break. The solution is in your brain and The Witness does an incredible job of building you up until you feel like a genius after solving a particularly difficult puzzle.

And then, kind of like an illegal drug, you start to chase that feeling. You’ve bested the game and its designers in a way that is truly a rush and you want more. Maybe you’re not a puzzle gamer. Maybe you don’t love the games narrative (and who could blame you). Maybe you’re tired of the pretentious audio logs. That doesn’t matter. The Witness is all about the journey or the process, losing yourself in the puzzles and personally challenging yourself to get better.

That’s what I found in this game. One of the more challenging experiences I’ve devoted myself to and, more importantly, one that I really, really wanted to finish. After all, The Witness does a great job of rewarding your devotion and diligence with incredibly cool and unique new puzzles. Some of the things you see in the final main area are mind-melting and will likely go down as a few of my favorite moments of the year. Obviously, this is game greatly benefits from your own discovery, so I don’t want to spoil anything, but know that the early challenges are worth it. Not in a narrative sense, but in the sense of the accomplishment you get and the mind-bending ways some of those last puzzles come together.

(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead).

But when you “finish” the game, you haven’t really finished the game. There is one last challenge left (well, two if you count the environmental puzzles, which are really cool). And that challenge is appropriately titled “The Challenge”. It’s a doozy.

To find the last (known) secrets in The Witness you are tasked with solving a series of 14 or so puzzles in under seven minutes. On the surface, that doesn’t seem to bad; however, these puzzles are random every single time. You can’t find a guide to help you finish if the timer is too strict. You can’t pause the game to think a puzzle over (though, there is a “rest mode” glitch on PS4). It’s you versus the machine in an ultimate test of how far you’ve come.

I’ve finished almost every game I’ve ever started. It usually doesn’t matter if the game is bad or broken, I finish it. The only game I remember not seeing through to the end (outside of, arguably, World of Warcraft) is Destiny, which is the only game I’ve ever turned back in to Gamestop. Even if I’m absolutely terrible at the game, I will my way through it.

I tell you all of this to give you some background on how crushed I was after spending six total hours on “The Challenge” and being unable to finish it. For the first time in my gaming history, I had to look at a game and say, “You beat me. I quit.”

And then I started to think about my experience. I spent the last few days ruminating on what I wanted to say about the game that beat me. Would I tell that story? Does it matter? Ultimately, I decided that it does because I think it speaks to what I love so much about this game.

In spite of the fact that I can’t finish the game and that I was extremely frustrated with myself during my many attempts, I can’t help but look back on that time and remember how much I love the process. I love the journey. That is what The Witness is all about. The process.

You don’t play this game because Blow and Thekla have crafted an incredible narrative that you have to see. You don’t play this game because they’ve put together an absolutely must-see gameplay mechanic. You don’t even play this game because it looks absolutely gorgeous.

No, you play this game because you fall in love with the process. The process of learning and understanding. The process of bettering yourself and teaching yourself how smart you are. And, most importantly, the process of discovery.

It’s a cliche, but the thing to remember when you play through The Witness is that it’s never about the destination, it’s all about the journey. This a journey I fell in love with and I think a lot of people will do the same. It doesn’t matter that the story isn’t that great or that I couldn’t beat it or that the gameplay is just solving line puzzles, it’s a great journey and, like I often say in these posts, it’s worth your time.

SHOULD YOU PLAY IT?  YES!!!!

Thoughts on…Undertale and LISA The Painful (and, to some degree, Jeff Gerstmann)

Reviews, Video Games

The other day, while I wrapping up my play through of LISA The Painful, something clicked with me. Something that had been gnawing at me for about for about the last year. And I don’t think that something would have happening if I had not finished LISA and Undertale within weeks of each other (while listening to a ridiculous amount of GiantBomb content in between).

Before we get to that, it’s important that I set the stage a little bit. So, bear with me here. My girlfriend is a computer engineering student who loves to code in C++ and Javascript, but is taking a job at a big company where she’ll get to do neither. She knows that I’m big into both video and board games and has asked me multiple times if I would be interested in co-developing a video game with her in our downtime to keep her programming skills up to snuff.

I agreed without really thinking about because it felt like something we would talk about a lot, but not ever do. Something with no stakes that would make her happy when I said, “sure, let’s do it !” But then, sometime last year, I was listening to a particularly heated rant from GiantBomb’s Jeff Gerstmann about the state of professional wrestling video games. He said a lot of things, but the one nugget that stuck out was when he spoke to how badly 2K games go about actually capturing what wrestling is all about. 2K’s WWE games are essentially fighting games, trying to sim a WWE match as if it’s an actual athletic contest instead of a predetermined show of skill that furthers a storyline. In fact, a game like WWE 2K16 misses the point of wrestling in almost every way and, even with its top-notch presentation and (sometimes) life-like character models, it fails to actually be a wrestling game.

Which got me thinking, what does that game look like? How could you make a wrestling game where the matches were more about telling a story than beating down your opponent? Is it possible to truly capture the glorious “sport” that is professional wrestling?

So I started thinking about it quite a bit. At first, I thought the best way to go about would be to make a game that plays like Kairosoft-like (the makers of Game Dev Story, among others) game that put you in charge of your own promotion. You would be signing various wrestlers and placing them in storylines that would improve your profit and allow you to sign bigger and better wrestlers.

In a lot of ways, that’s a potentially great game and I even started to prototype it by building up a board game version. However,  I quickly realized that, while this macro approach to the wrestling scene could be fun to dig into, I was much more interested in the micro side of things. I wanted to take a few characters and tell a real story about their lives in-and-outside the ring.  I wanted to turn this idea into an RPG.

For a long time, that’s as far as I got. I knew that I wanted the aesthetic to be akin to an SNES game (largely because RPGmaker seems like a tool my girlfriend and I could most easily use for our first foray into game design), but I didn’t know how to make a classic RPG battle system work within the framework of a wrestling match. How could I take that menu-based combat and make it simulate a match where entertainment is more important than damage without it getting too abstract?

At the time, I didn’t feel like I had the knowledge to solve that problem, so I shelved the idea. Hoping that someone would come along that could figure out how to do it right.

Then I started playing Undertale. A great indie game that does some excellent story-telling that really twists what you’ve come to assume from an old-school style RPG. Heck, it even messes with the way you think games are designed by playing with how we understand saving a game. To say more would be a mistake. This is a game you need to experience on your own to really “get”. I’m not on the “This is the BEST GAME EVER!!!!” bandwagon like so many people of the Internet, but it’s worth your time.

In lieu of an actual review (which I’ve started to shy away from anyways), I decided to just keep my thoughts on Undertale to myself. “After all,” I thought, “everyone and their mom is putting out Undertale content right now.” So I just moved on to other games, knowing that pretty much everything I would say about Undertale has been said. That said, one thing continued to stick with me. The combat.

I mentioned above that my biggest hurdle to my dream wrestling RPG game was figuring out how to do combat right. I couldn’t think of a way to take traditional, menu-driven combat and make it work for my needs. And then I played Undertale. I’m not saying that I now want to use a bullet hell mechanic to facilitate putting on a quality match, but it got me thinking of ways to subvert the common tropes of that style of game design.

That said, I was still pretty pessimistic that I could make it work. After all, Toby Fox is an actual game designer, who boasts some music ability to boot. I’m just some dude who wants to use RPGmaker to try and realize his dream game in whatever way possible. I wouldn’t have the first clue about programming something like a bullet hell mechanic in the middle of my classic RPG game.

And then I played LISA.

 

Now, I don’t want you to take that sentence and assume that I’m saying LISA is an inferior product to Undertale. In a lot of ways, I actually like it better. It’s certainly more my style of game and, while it doesn’t play on your assumptions of gameplay like Undertale, I would put its overall package right up there with Undertale.

No, what LISA did was show me what’s capable when you start with RPGmaker. Dingaling put together an incredible tale that lets players do almost whatever they want and has real consequences for your actions. There are branching paths (a must for the game I’m dreaming up) and, in the follow-up, he even adds some flair to the combat system. If Gerstmann’s thought was the spark, Undertale was the tinder and LISA is the huge log that’s going to turn the fire into a blaze.

Obviously, this is the first real attempt I’ve ever made at producing a video game. I expect it will take quite a bit of time and honestly might never come out. That said, I felt the need to write about how inspiring these two games have been as I begin working on this game. Expect semi-regular updates on this blog as they come, but, for now, go buy Undertale and LISA. They’re great experiences and who knows? Maybe you’ll get inspired to.

 

Thoughts on Fallout 4

Reviews, Video Games

The Fallout series has been at the top of my list of favorite franchises for a number of years. I put 200+ hours into both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas and I’ve played the original games through multiple times. You could say that it was predetermined that I would champion Fallout 4 as the must have game of 2015. And you wouldn’t be far off.

I came into The Commonwealth expecting to love every second of my time there. After all, the gunplay is vastly improved, the setting is interesting to me (loved seeing what they did with Fenway), and I was more than intrigued by the new crafting system seen in both your equipment and your settlements. Heck, I put 200+ hours into this game (platinumed it even) and couldn’t help but ask myself, “is that it?”

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It looks big, but why doesn’t it feel that way?

You see, in a lot of ways, my time with Fallout 4 is perfectly summed up by looking at one of the main antagonists in story, the Synths. Synths are faster, stronger, smarter, and less likely to die from radiation poisoning than their human counterparts. However, as machines, they don’t have the soul that makes human beings human. In almost every sense of the word, they’re perfect, but, even then, they can’t hold a candle to the real thing.

And that’s how I feel about Fallout 4. For all intents and purposes, Fallout 4 is “better” than Fallout 3 or New Vegas. The “gamey” segments of the game take a massive step forward. Playing without V.A.T.S. is finally possible because the guns actually control decently well. The crafting system is deep, if clunky, and gives adventurers something to do when they get bored of exploring The Commonwealth. Speaking of The Commonwealth, it’s absolutely chock full of things to do. The density and scale of Boston are well represented here and put the relatively sparse Capital Wasteland and New Vegas to shame. There aren’t any boring subway tunnels or desolate deserts to explore here.

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A Sample of the Weapon Crafting

But, even with all of those buildings and environments to explore, Fallout 4 feels empty. At first, exploration feels great because there’s so much of it. But then you’ll hit your 20th named area, walk inside, look around, and realize that there’s nothing interesting here. The modern Fallout series has always struggled to tell a compelling main narrative; it’s the side stories and little moments out in the wastes that bring the game to life and give it character. And, in Fallout 4, there’s almost none of that.

There’s an image floating around that compares the quests offered in Fallout 4 to those in Skyrim that I’ll link here: https://imgur.com/a/Mvc3i. As you can see, the number of quests has gone down significantly and, as someone who’s done most of them, quite a few of those are repeatable and offer little to no story development. The most interesting quests in Fallout 4 are, undoubtedly, the companion quests. Unlike the majority of the game, your companions are actual characters with backstories and more than three lines of dialogue. Unfortunately, there are only four of those, which means the nine other companions are largely left out to dry. That doesn’t necessarily mean those companions aren’t worth picking up, it just means their impact is minimal.

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Nick Valentine has one of the better Companion Quests in the game.

Even putting the actual quests and narrative aside, the world feels like a barren wasteland, and not in a good way. In past Fallout games, the world felt lived in, there were people in the most random locations that made the wastes feel like a real place. This isn’t the case in Fallout 4. There are no memorable locations that aren’t included in the main storyline. You won’t find a Republic of Dave or a Gang of Granies. Those kind of fun, one-off experiences are no longer present in this world and that takes the magic out of what made Fallout such a popular series for me.

Even still, it’s hard to find much else to fault in this game (aside from the many bugs that are synonymous with Bethesda open-world games). In many ways, it is the best video game in the modern line of Fallout titles. However, it goes so far away from the essence of what Fallout is, that it’s hard for me to recommend even after spending 200 hours mostly enjoying myself. That’s why this isn’t a real review of the game. That would be me praising the game for the vast majority of the post and then mentioning in a few paragraphs how badly it fails at capturing the Fallout spirit. Instead, I think it’s important to simply focus on why this game isn’t what Fallout fans like myself are looking.

Should you play this game? NO, NOT REALLY

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Scoring this game would be near impossible for me. It’s difficult to separate my expectations for a Fallout game from what I look for when trying to critically look at a video game. Maybe that makes me a poor reviewer; however, I think it’s important for a franchise as big as this one to, at least somewhat, cater to their fans. This entry goes against the main thing I would consider crucial to a modern day Fallout game; a wasteland filled with interesting characters who all have stories to tell.

Fallout 4 is bigger, stronger, faster, and possibly better than the games that came before it. But, much like a synth replacing a loved family member, it lacks the soul that made the series special and, no matter how polished and seemingly perfect the replication is, it will never have the same impact of the thing it replaced.

Thoughts on Life is Strange

Reviews, Video Games

(Note: Fair warning, this write up is going to contain a few spoilers for Life is Strange. I don’t feel like I can do this “Thoughts on..” justice without them. If you don’t want to be spoiled stay away.)

This write-up is going to be a little different from my traditional “Thoughts on…” series. That’s because, for me, the things that make Life is Strange such a must-play game aren’t really traditional to video games. Thus, I’m not going to waste time talking about the graphics (solid for an adventure game, though the lip syncing is very bad), the voice acting (stellar, especially Ashly Burch as Chloe and Dani Knights as Victoria), the gameplay (interesting mechanic that lets you rewind time to replay decisions with different information), the music (fits the setting remarkable well), or any other things you’d usually see in this space.

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Instead, let’s talk about makes this game so special. In a world of bad stories in video games, it’s rare to get a good one. Those usually come in the form of a major twist that blows your mind, some excellent character development, or a twist on a classic story. Life is Strange has all those things. The time travel story has been told before, but the ways we get there are new and interesting. The arc of Max (the protagonist) and Chloe is one of the better ones I’ve seen this year. And the game brings at least two major twists (one more expected than the other) that are sure to cause you to put down the controller/mouse for a minute or two.

All of that would be great on its own, but what elevates Life is Strange’s story from just good to great is how it takes a setting most of us know well (high school, those these students are at a super expensive art school in Oregon) and forces you to put your own perspective onto the events playing out in front of you.

This effect happened in a small way at first. You begin the game in your art class, but, once the bell sounds, you go out in the hall and see all of your fellow students milling about between class. This is a familiar experience and I wouldn’t be surprised if most people find a reasonable facsimile of who they were back in school if they take the time to look. For me, it was when I came upon Daniel DaCosta.

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Daniel is chubby kid who’s really into drawing and, when you first see him is getting beat up. That was pretty much me in middle school, if you replace drawing with Diablo 2 and Starcraft. Thus, I couldn’t help but feel for him and decided at that moment, it would be my mission to help this guy as much as possible.

After receiving my rewind powers in the girl’s bathroom, I went outside to go meet Warren (we’ll talk about him a bit soon) and saw Daniel sitting by himself in the grass. I ran over as fast as I could, hoping to spill all of my advice as someone who had been in his place 15 years ago. Of course, Max doesn’t have that knowledge, so I had to do the only option available. I let Daniel draw me like one of his French girls.

That was when I had to take a step back. Was I using Max to fill my own middle school fantasies? Girls didn’t talk to me. I didn’t have any friends my age. Was I trying to use Max to solve those problems I had had so many years ago? I often roleplay my characters as the best version of myself, so this is likely the route I would’ve gone in any other game. However, because I saw so much of myself in Daniel, it forced me to really examine if I was using Max as a tool to fix my own problems or actually playing the game the way Max would.

We put ourselves into video game characters all the time, especially in RPGs and adventure games. How often do we ask ourself if we should? Is it fair to Max to try and railroad her into a relationship (romantic or not) with Daniel? What if the real Max doesn’t like Daniel? Does that make me a bad person? Does it matter? After all, she’s just a video game character.

Daniel wouldn’t be the last person that forced me to ask myself these questions.

After meeting a few other students of Blackwell, Max and I walked over to the parking lot to meet up with Warren and continue our quest. Warren is a lovable goof, who’s interested in science class, geeky pop culture, and Max. It’s your typical “boy is in love with a girl who barely seems to notice and/or care”, which is a story I know too well.

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I spent my junior and senior years of high school along with most of my freshman year of college chasing after a girl very similar to Max. Every time I thought I was moving forward, she would re-enter my life and proceed to lead me on for a few months before telling me she wasn’t interested.

So, you can see why I was able to quickly level with my man, Warren. It’s obvious that he’s smitten with Max, but she doesn’t really seem to reciprocate. My first instinct was to force Max to fall for Warren by making the “right” choices.

But that felt wrong. I was forcing Max into a situation that she might not want to be in just because I had some problems with a girl in high school? What if I could find the solution I hoped would happen to me? So, with that new goal in mind, I tried my best to cut Max out of Warren’s life and let him realize that he has everything he wants in a girl in Brooke (another Blackwell student).

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really allow for this scenario, but I was able to find solace in a late move that put Brooke and Daniel together. Maybe this was the game teaching me something I’ve struggled with so many years. It’s when you’re not really looking for love, that it actually finds you. Brooke wanted Warren, but couldn’t have him, and Daniel was only interested in drawing. It’s fitting that those two would end up together after I pushed so hard to put Brooke with Warren and Daniel with Max. And, much like before, this wasn’t the last time Life is Strange would surprise me.

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My stepdad passed away this past spring in a freak small airplane accident. I’m telling you this so you can understand why I was able to connect, in some small way, with Chloe. Five years before the start of Life is Strange, Chloe lost her father in a car accident. And it wasn’t how the tragedy affected Chloe that got to me, it was how hard it hit her mom Joyce.

When I come home to see my mom, slumped over the bills she can no longer afford, I always think, “is there something I could do?” Could I move back home, take a job, and try to help her out until she’s able to get back on her feet? Would that make her happy? It’s a frustrating place to be in because there really isn’t anything I can do.

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But Max can do something. Max can rewind time. Max can save William, Joyce’s husband and Chloe’s dad. And she does. for a split second, it seems like everything is great. Max pops back to the future, finds herself back at Blackwell, hanging out with her friends, and decides to get to Chloe’s house as quickly as possible. For about 30 seconds, it’s complete euphoria. William is back among the living; standing there, greeting Max and calling for Chloe to come to the door. And that’s when the other shoe drops.

You see, in fairy tales (and lesser video games) stories like these can have a happy ending. The princess marries the prince and they live happily ever after. But real life? Well, real life is strange. And when you add mind-bending time rewinding powers to the mix, that’s when it gets truly crazy.

I sat there, hoping to see my good friend Chloe alive and well, enjoying the time with her dad that she lost in the other reality. Instead, Chloe rolled into frame in a wheelchair. She couldn’t feel her body below her neck and had to completely rely on her parents for everything.

That’s when I lost it. I sat there for a good ten minutes, just slack jawed. As tears welled up in my eyes, I realized that, in some weird way, this game was speaking to me in a manner I hadn’t seen before. Life is Strange makes you ask questions. Not questions about what will happen in the next big plot point (though those do happen), but questions about your own life. I had begun the game trying to fulfill fantasies from my middle school days and rectify mistakes I made in high school, but now, now this game, this video game, was helping me deal with a real adult situation that has deeply affected my family. And that was only in the third episode!

In my opinion, that’s the mark of a great story and of a truly great work of art. It makes you question things in life and gives you a new perspective on the problems around you. Life is Strange forced me to accept that there’s nothing I can for my mom except to love her deeply and hold as long as I can. I always knew I’d be there for her, but now I’m at peace with my own limited ability to help her. Just like Joyce and Chloe (oddly enough, Chloe is my stepsister’s name), my mom will find a way. Because that’s what strong people do.

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I don’t know if I’ve done this write-up justice. It was hard to write for many reasons, but, if you take one thing from this, it’s this: Life is Strange is worth your time. It’s the first video game I’ve played with a truly great story that you should experience. It tackles important mature topics in a meaningful manner and is among my favorite video game experiences of the year.

Should you play it? ABSOLUTELY

Thoughts on Metal Gear Solid V

Reviews, Video Games

Metal Gear Solid V is one of the better games released this year, but also one of the most confusing. In some ways, it’s baffling how a series that has long been known for lengthy and ambitious (whether those games deliver on their ambition is up for debate) storytelling can release a game that is so deep in scope in regards to its gameplay, but lacks the same cinematic appeal that made the MGS series a fan favorite.

With that said, the moment-to-moment gameplay is some of the best in video game history. No one has ever done tactical stealth this well. The gunplay is intuitive and near perfect in its execution (something that’s always been lacking in past games). The breadth of options for how to approach every situation is absolutely mind-boggling. Many games claim that there are countless ways to approach every situation, but MGSV is the first game that I’ve actually felt like that is completely true in every encounter.

Your playthrough will be completely different than mine because of how many options we have at our disposal. Every gun type has at least three or four main options and those main types even break down into more options. And then there are countless different options for support items and various sneaking suits. It’s hard to wrap your mind around at first, but once you dive in, the game really opens up and you’ll love all the tools you have at your disposal.

On top of all these ridiculous options (which I could go into more detail about, but won’t to keep some secrets for you), you unlock various companions throughout your journey. These range from a horse that helps you get around faster (and can poop on command) to a Walker Gear that you can outfit with tons of different options. For my money, Quiet, your sniper friend, is the most helpful. Once you get her a tranquilizer sniper rifle, she’ll singlehandedly knock out everyone in an outpost and you can meander in to Fulton everyone.

Now, I said I wouldn’t talk about any more items, but the Fulton has to be mentioned. Essentially, it’s a balloon that you attach to knocked out guards (or weapons or cars or tanks or shipping containers) that whisks them off the battlefield and into your arsenal. This is how you build up your base, which is a very important part of the game.

Base improvement brings quite a few major perks. For one, it opens up more of those gun and support options mentioned above through your R&D team. Additionally, you’ll get better weather and enemy position intel as well as a better strikeforce to send on missions that get your more materials. As mentioned, it can be hard to wrap your head around everything when you first start, but as you play, you quickly pick it up.

That speaks to how slick this game is overall. We’ve talked about both the base building and gameplay systems and how incredibly well put together they are, but I should also mention that the game looks great. Metal Gear games have been pushing graphical boundaries for years, and this game is no different. However, it’s the scope of the environments that really got me. There are two massive areas for you to explore and, while there is a lot of empty space, both maps feel very well laid out and interesting.

And really, the end of that sentence sums up my overall feelings about the game. Everything feels lovingly crafted and you can tell they put a ton of time and money into development. Everything, that is, outside of the story.

For a series so renowned for its bonkers narrative, it’s disappointing to see Kojima step away from that. Most of the story is told through listening to tapes and the handful of cutscenes aren’t near as grandiose and insane as past entries. That isn’t to say the story is bad, it’s just not good in the same way other games in this series were.

Adding to the lack of narrative development is the weird way the story is doled out. As mentioned, a lot of the story comes through tapes that you listen to, but the cut scenes you do see are structured in a very non-traditional way. The game has two acts and the first one is pretty solid. Sure, nothing that noteworthy happens, but there are varied and fun missions to complete. Then, the second act begins.

It was here that the game started to fall apart a little for me. At first, you get a few story missions to complete, along with a few important side ops. But then your next missions are simply harder versions of missions you completed in act one. As you complete those, you sometimes unlock more story, but it’s never really clear what exactly unlocks those.

And then, the game just ends without too many of your questions answered. If this wasn’t Kojima’s last foray into the series, that’s not a big deal. However, this is (supposedly) his last entry and I don’t think many fans will end the game satisfied from a story-telling perspective. It honestly feels like they build up this very solid opening act (which, it should be noted, takes about 40-50 hours) and then ran out of time, money, and passion. The second act feels thrown together, potentially by a different team. Obviously, I know nothing about the game’s development, but it just doesn’t feel like this is the ending Kojima would want for his swan song.

Maybe I’m being overly negative about the story because of how excellent the gameplay is. If something can be a game of the year and disappointment of the year competitor, this is it. There’s so much promise here that I would whole-heartedly recommend this to anyone. However, I can’t say I was, as a huge fan of Kojima’s story-telling, was completely satisfied when the final credits rolled.

SHOULD YOU PLAY IT? YES (?)

MGSV reminds me of the James Bond film, Skyfall. Both are incredible works of art in their field. Skyfall is the best film in the James Bond series, but also didn’t really feel like a James Bond movie. MGSV is the same. It’s an absolutely must-play game, but it doesn’t have that MGS feel. That will turn some people off, but this is something you should probably experience for yourself.